Persephone Books Biannually

I was delighted to see an article by Dr Sara Lodge on Richmal Crompton’s novels in the latest Persephone Biannually, published by Persephone Books. I certainly agree that she writes about frustrated women, neglected children and bad writers. Some of her characters who are writers are very funny too, especially when they feature in the Just William stories.

Frost at Morning (1950), published by Bello, is concerned with what happens to children when they have to spend time away from their parents for various reasons, such as divorce, when a parent remarries and when they are adopted. These children wonder whether they are loved at all. It is not a family saga and questions the nature of family life and what happens to these children as they grow up. How do childhood experiences have an impact on their life?

Family Roundabout (1948), published by Persephone Books, is an enjoyable family saga in which two matriarchal figures dominate. Crompton’s early Wildings trilogy is worth reading too: The Wildings (1925), David Wilding (1926) and The Thorn Bush (1928).

What would be a good novel to start with?

Dear Tim,
Thanks for asking me about this. Mist is her only published collection of ghost stories. You may enjoy it more if you think of it as a mix of gothic horror stories and stories based on folktales or myths. She wrote nine other non-William short story collections, as well as three Jimmy books about a younger boy.

Maybe start with one of the novels. How can I recommend them? Well, quite a number are still out of print, so although I will write about them in my biography, I will not mention them now. Another issue is that Crompton wrote forty novels and they are most definitely not all the same. She is best known for writing family sagas and she wrote several, including Family Roundabout. She also wrote: novels about the lives of women (including Millicent Dorrington), in common with other women writers of the period; stories about a group of people at a particular moment in their lives who are on holiday (such as Chedsy Place), from the same family (try Old Man’s Birthday), live in the same village or on the same housing estate; some comic novels (e.g. Journeying Wave, Caroline); or allegories that are not to be read as traditional realism; and several interesting novels set in the Second World War, including Mrs Frensham Describes a Circle.

William, of course, abandons writing to become a rebel (William the Bold), cannot understand why grown-ups waste precious time on railway journeys reading (William Does His Bit), and takes most of the stories he reads literally.

The Outlaws have been reading Robin Hood. It had a special appeal because he was an outlaw like them. Violet suggests that they should “took thingth from rich people to give to poor people, thame ath they did”:

“The suggestion was received in silence. The Outlaws looked at William, the leader…. Violet Elizabeth’s idea appealed to William’s adventure-and-romance-loving soul. But it had one serious drawback. It had been proposed by Violet Elizabeth, for whom William had always professed a profound contempt. His contempt for the proposer (which was almost a point of honour with him) struggled hard with his secret delight at the proposal.” (“William the Philanthropist” in William the Conqueror)

I would love to know what you think about any of the novels you read.

T.S. Eliot and Throwing Light on Richmal Crompton

During research for my biography of Richmal Crompton, I came across a copy of a letter from September 1948 by T.S. Eliot, written when he was a publisher. He comments that a biographer of an author “should study the writings, with a modicum at least of literary appreciation, for the light they throw on the man.” He later adds, “I am not asking that a biographer should make the character of his subject more agreeable than he finds it to be, but that he should not leave us unable to reconcile the character he depicts, with the literary works which we know.” There is a typed rather than a handwritten signature, so I have taken it on trust that the original letter was written by the poet T.S. Eliot. The source of the letter is credible. So far, I have not been able to find the original letter and would be delighted to know where I could find it.

Whatever one might say about its provenance, finding this document was a memorable moment in my work on the biography. It spoke directly to me and I have thought about it often when I have been writing. This is exactly what I want to do, to throw some light on a writer and her work by offering some new material about her life and, I hope, a modicum of literary appreciation when I discuss her writing. For some of Richmal Crompton’s fans it has not always been easy to reconcile William Brown and the glories of her stories about him with the woman they think they know, especially if they thought she was a man. If my biography does little else, it should reveal a woman and a writer who has the intellect, empathy, and imagination to create William, other comic stories and novels, and more serious works.

Beveridge Report (worth repeating)

The current huge pressures on the NHS take us back not only to the Beveridge Report, but also to William Brown and the Outlaws who wrote their own Outlaws Report. A few of their wishes, for all the wrong reasons, have unfortunately come true:

1. As much hollidays as term.
2. No afternoon school.
3. Six pence a week pocket munny and not to be took off.
4. No Latin. No French. No Arithmetick.
5. As much ice creem and banarnas and creem buns as we like free.
6. No punnishments and stay up as late as we like.
“The Outlaws Report” in William and the Brains Trust (1945)

Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives.
Stay safe.

Felicity Standing By William

Richmal Crompton creates a comic heroine in Felicity Stands By (1928), a collection of stories based on the antics of sixteen-year-old Felicity. She lives at the Hall with her sister Rosemary, her grandfather Sir Digby Harborough, his secretary Franklin, who is in love with Rosemary, Moult the butler, with occasional visits from her brother Ronald and her aunt Lady Montague – there always has to be an aunt. The book is held together by a loose plot that revolves around Franklin and Rosemary’s relationship and the years between Felicity leaving school and the dramatic moment when her plaits are snipped off and she, apparently, grows up.

Felicity’s “familiar demon of mischief” inspires all sorts of misadventures based on meddling, misunderstandings and mistaken identity.

In “Felicity Comes to Town”, Felicity has stolen some letters mistakenly believing that her sister, Rosemary, wants them back. However, Felicity realises that

she was making a distinct mess of the affair. Look at it in any way she would, she had to admit that she was making a distinct mess of it. She had taken the papers without making sure that they were Rosemary’s and—and they’d turned out not to be. They might have been, of course, but the fact remained that they weren’t. Then she had gone upstairs to put the letters back and left them behind on Marcia’s writing-table. Then she’d locked [someone] in the cupboard. She didn’t know how she was going to explain that …. In fact, she didn’t know how she was going to explain anything to anyone, and she saw the moment when explanations would be demanded not far ahead.

For Felicity, “Real life is very disappointing.” William would no doubt sympathise with her plight.

William, Brown and Beveridge, not Brexit

We do not know what William Brown would have made of Brexit. The Just William stories, however, did cover many key political moments in the early to mid-twentieth century. Contemporary commentators find that the stories still have relevance today.

William Beveridge published his report in 1942 and recommended that the government should find ways of fighting the five ‘Giant Evils’ of ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness’. Professor Eugene Milne, an Editor of the Journal of Public Health, reflects on how William Brown and the Outlaws respond in 1944 to the Beveridge Report, on which the foundations of our National Health Service were built:

“Richmal Crompton’s short story, ‘The Outlaws’ Report’, first published in 1944, revolves around our hero, William Brown, and his gang—Ginger, Henry and Douglas (I don’t recall whether Jumble the dog was present)—penning a response to the report’s publication and smuggling it into the briefcase of a War Office official….

William and his Outlaw friends’ amendments to Beveridge; their additional ‘Giants’ were:
1. As much holidays as term.
2. No afternoon school.
3. Sixpence a week pocket munny and not to be took off.
4. No Latin no French no Arithmetick.
5. As much ice cream and bananas and cream buns as we like free.
6. No punishments and stay up as late as we like.

It is a sign of diminished political times and dialogue that this is now, essentially, our national policy on Brexit.”

See: Eugene Milne, “William and the Beveridge Report!”:
Eugene Milne; Just William, Journal of Public Health, Volume 39, Issue 4, 1 December 2017, Pages 651–652,



Just genius … William’s creator

It was good to see journalist David Aaronovitch singing Richmal Crompton’s praises in The Times on 13th February.


Aaronovitch argues that Richmal Crompton “created one of the great characters of English literature. And that the way she did it means she stands comparison with Wodehouse and Waugh…. William is almost always on the side of the tramp, the underdog and the rebel in the face of wealth and authority. And though her hero professes to disdain girls, Crompton’s females are invariably reluctant to accept the demure straightjacket society seeks to impose on them” (The Times 13th February 2019). This is, as he suggests, true of Violet Elizabeth, who is a natural rebel and fighter: “I can” is one of her mantras. It is also true of many of the women characters in her novels. Others, however, like William’s sister Ethel, are representative of convention and restraint, but then like her father and brother she just thinks that William is mad. They utterly fail to understand him, whilst we as Crompton’s readers do.

The J.K. Rowling of her day

I went to a recording of two Just William stories being performed by Martin Jarvis last week. He is quite right, Richmal Crompton was the J.K. Rowling of her day. I plan to write about this over the coming months.

The recording was held in the Orange Tree theatre in Richmond upon Thames. I was struck by how many men were there. I have met several of her male fans recently who still think she was a man. Is the success of Martin Jarvis’s reading just nostalgia for days gone by and their early childhood reading? I don’t think so. William speaks to both boy and man and Martin Jarvis’s performance brings this aspect of her writing to life.

Jarvis gives us a thoughtful, strategic William. I overheard a member of the audience put it perfectly. Richmal Crompton does not talk down to children, he commented, which was why he liked her Just William stories so much as a child. Martin Jarvis captures this quality in Crompton’s writing. He gives us a William who can sound ageless.

At times, William portrays qualities that could be true for both children and adults. In one of the stories Jarvis performed, “William and the Musician”, we are entranced by William’s imagination that creates exciting adventures and takes him off into another world. At the same time, this quality is one that perhaps, like him, we have all learnt to rein in:

“William had learnt that in dealing with ordinary limited human beings one’s imagination should not be given too free a rein. He put the true artistic touch of restraint into his picture.”

The care Martin Jarvis takes with each word and phrase, the detailed attention to the tone of even the snappiest retort, makes me realise how nuanced these stories are. He performs a William who “gave himself up again to gloomy reverie” and is worried that his new found friend will be “ignominiously ejected” from a local event. His attention to Crompton’s language and his precision timing to heighten the comedy are absolutely critical to our enjoyment.

Martin Jarvis’s performance also reminded me that it is often other adult characters in Crompton’s stories who we laugh at, while we laugh with William.

Martin Jarvis’s performance of two stories in Just William Live can be heard on BBC Radio 4 on:

William and the Musician: Wednesday 1st May 2019 11:30AM.
William and the School Report: Wednesday 8th May 2019 11:30AM.

A moment to remember Richmal Lamburn

Today seems a good day to revive my blog about the work of the author, Richmal Crompton. Many of her readers may not realise that her real name was Richmal Lamburn. Crompton was her mother’s maiden name. The life of the woman is somewhat hidden behind her work as an author and her most famous character, William Brown. Richmal Lamburn died 50 years ago today. 2019 is also the hundredth anniversary of the publication of the first Just William story. I am thinking of both Richmal and William Brown today.

In one of his more sanguine moments, in “The Helper”:

“[William]  had come to the conclusion that morning that there was certain monotonous sameness about life. One got up, and had one’s breakfast, and went to school, and had one’s dinner, and went to school, and had one’s tea, and played, and had one’s supper, and went to bed.”

Always thought provoking…

William does nothin’

One of the things I love about working in Richmal Crompton’s archive at the University of Roehampton is when I can piece together different fragments of paper and narrative that tell us something about her writing life. Here is an example of what I mean.

Here is part of the draft manuscript for a story called “William and the New Civilisation”:

RC manuscript.1
Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton

In the middle section of the page it reads as follows:

They walked on for a few yards then stopped again to listen. The words “William Brown” rose clearly above the tumult.

“There,” said William. “I knew they’d say it was my fault. Nothin’ ever happens anywhere without them sayin’ it was my fault.

“An’ it wasn’t any of our faults,” said Ginger.

“Course it wasn’t,” said William. He was silent for a few moments then continued, “But let’s try ‘n’ look as if it wasn’t. That sometimes helps. To start with anyway.”

Crompton used scraps of paper to make all sorts of notes about her writing like this royalty statement:

RC manuscript.1.amendment.a
Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton

On the back she made the following amendment:

RC manuscript.1.amendment.b
Archives and Special Collections, University of Roehampton

The tumult was dying down again, replaced with a babel of children’s voices. Above the babel the words “William Brown” could be clearly distinguished.

“There,” said William with a certain gloomy satisfaction. “I knew they’d say it was my fault. Nothin’ ever happens anywhere without them sayin’ it was my fault.

“It wasn’t any of our faults,” said Ginger.

“Course it wasn’t,” said William, “we did nothin’”

“Nothin,” said Ginger.

“Nothin,” said Henry

“Nothin,” said Douglas

“Well let’s try ‘n’ look as if we’d done nothing,” said W”

Needless to say this was a memorable moment in my research. I also checked the final version of this story and it is indeed this amendment that was published.